How do I love he? Let me count the ways…

When you have a dog with behavior problems or challenges, it is both easy and tempting to dwell on all the things you have to work on, the things that are frustrating or embarrassing, or the things that alter the frequency of your hair-dyeing routine due to increased greys.  I get it.  I think it’s probably human nature.

But the crux of good training, really, is to find good moments and reward them.  Over time, this improves dog behavior and owner attitudes about their dog.  I could post pages full of things that I still need to work on with Cuba and Mokie, but since we’ve been talking lately about my struggles with Cuba’s adolescence, I figured it’s good to take a step back and teach you all about how wonderful he is.

I have a big problem with the label “bad dogs.”  Because I have anxiety disorder and depression myself, I am not always at my cheery best, but even when I am tempted to lay on the horn and scream “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” at the lady in front of me going 40 mph in a 65 mph speed limit zone, I still think I’m a pretty good person.  Almost all of my clients who are seeking behavioral guidance for their dogs say, “he really is a good dog, except when…”  This statement is usually offered with trepidation – will she believe me?  Yes, I will.

Cuba is a great dog too, despite barking at stumps, traffic, and other assorted environmental stimuli.  Here are some of my favorite things about him:

  1. He sleeps through nail trimming.  Laid on his back, legs fully extended, jowls dragging along the floor, snoring.  I love it.  I’ve never in my life met a dog so relaxed for nail trims.
  2. He wags his tail whenever he hears a loud clap of thunder.  Yes, he is expecting a treat.  He’s also probably going to get one.
  3. He is a good kitty snuggler – my 3.5 legged cat Ahab literally stalks Cuba around the house, waiting for him to lay down, so that he can lay on Cuba or wrangle his way under one of those twenty pound legs of his.  It’s really pretty cute.  They pretty much love each other a lot!
  4. He loves to learn.  He’ll happily stay engaged in training sessions and loves offering different behaviors for reinforcement, playing shaping games, and engaging in problem-solving puzzles, toys, and challenges.
  5. His foundation skills are actually quite nice!  I’m pretty proud of his loose leash walking, his reliable name response and recall, his ability and enthusiasm for staying with me off leash while we go out in the woods, and his targeting behavior is awesome!  Sometimes I have to remind myself that behavior problems are not necessarily obedience problems, and vice versa.
  6. He’s a pretty mellow guy!  Cuba will happily wait his turn for training sessions (Mokie could take a page from that book!), and will run to his crate and lie down immediately when I’m working with Mokie, resting with the crate door open until he’s invited out.
  7. He loves to play.  Cuba will play with almost any toy I offer him.  Even when he’s excited, he has a beautiful “drop,” default sit, and will wait until released to bring back his favorite toy for another round of fetch/tug.
  8. He self-handicaps well in play.  Mokie, my Chow mix, is seven years old and arthritic, which hardly slows her down but nonetheless means that she could easily be hurt when engaging in fairly rough play with a dog four times her size.  Self-handicapping means that a large dog will not use the full extent of his strength when engaging in play with a smaller or unwell dog – kind of like when dad arm wrestles his three year old son and lets the kid win.  Cuba does the same when playing with another friend who is also 1/4 his size and has a luxating patella, or with his Westie friend who is about 1/10th of his size.  Thanks, pal!
  9. He doesn’t resource guard at all.  He will let Ahab crawl all over him while enjoying a marrow bone, and will gladly allow me to remove a big chunk of raw meat from his crate or mouth if needed.  Not long ago, both of the dogs got steak for dinner – Mokie got a much smaller portion (since she is a much smaller dog).  She ran out of her crate, abandoning her own steak, and grabbed a four pound steak out of his mouth before dancing away – instead of resource guarding, he stood there wagging his tail, looking a bit confused, as if to say, “Not sure what happened there, but I am still hungry!”  Needless to say, I took the steak away from Mokie, gave it back to Cuba, and yes, I closed her crate door (she is ballsy!).
  10. He is SILLY.  I don’t know that I’ve ever spent time with a dog that makes me laugh harder than Cuba, and this includes Boxers!
  11. He loves being groomed.  He’d let me brush him all day, even sleeping as I work through tangles and the very occasional mat.
  12. He is a seriously amazing snuggler.
  13. He keeps getting better every day – already, things that used to be a struggle (like getting in the van or having his harness put on) are no longer issues.  While we still have lots of issues to work on, it makes me feel good when I reflect on all the things that used to scare him but now are fun for us to do together.
  14. We are surrounded on almost all sides of the yard by dogs that love to fence fight.  While I try to be proactive about managing (not letting him out when the craziest of neighbor dogs are out, being prepared with treats and training strategies when we go out together, etc.), the occasional fence fight happens despite my best efforts.  I am really proud that I can call him and he will come immediately even when in the midst of such an event.  I’m also pretty happy that we went out many times today without a single reaction (see no. 13 on the list – he is getting better)!

I’m pretty much madly in love with this dog and am so glad he is a part of my family.  I could go on and on, but this is a blog and not a book.  Like Monte, I suspect that he will be one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and I will always remain his faithful friend, student, and guide.  Love you, Cubie Doo!


5 comments on “How do I love he? Let me count the ways…
  1. Kelley H says:

    Thanks for sharing your updates on Cuba! I’ve loved him
    Since you brought him home! You are an awesome
    Trainer (from what I’ve read!) and he’s lucky to have you.
    It’s also helpful to know even a trainer can have a dog with issues.
    When I’m down about an issue with Sarge, it
    helps me to think about all he does well! I love him dearly! (He’s a silly Boxer!) ;). Thank you for sharing updates!!!

  2. admin says:

    Hi Kelley,

    Thank you! I really appreciate the feedback. Cuba and I are definitely a work in progress, still learning and growing together as a team. Some days are better than others, with the good days getting much more frequent (dependent on how much time I can set aside to – *gasp* – actually train my own dogs)! It is easy to dwell on the stuff that makes us crazy, but it’s more important to take a step back and think about why we love our dogs and what makes it worth it!

  3. Irene says:

    I really like this post. I have a reactive dog as well, she is almost 3 years and has been overaroused and reactive toward dogs since 3 months old, and more recently now towards strangers (after a traumatizing event with an uninvited drunk guy while camping). For the longest time I used to dwell on all the things that would go wrong with her, all of the things she didn’t do well, all the regressions when things seemed to be going well, and all of the months going by that we never seem to make any progress. I was frustrated, miserable and ready to give up.

    After a major change in training methods, I have been able to focus on all the good things, and my relationship and communication with her is amazing. It was a struggle for me at first, because I’d always been taught that you need to be ‘alpha’, and that was something I wasn’t sure I was willing to give up. But once I saw the power of positive reinforcement and proper teaching and training methods, I was able to give up all the nonsense. No more alpha, dominance or corrections, and no more ugly chain or prong collars. I use either a flat collar or Halti, and I had to reteach her to walk on a leash once she figured out there were no more corrections. It’s amazing how willing and cooperative your dog becomes though, once you stop forcing her to do everything.

    She now has a choice, and I’d say at least 80% of the time she chooses obedience, leash or no leash (she actually seems to behave better off-leash). If we’re in a working mode, she is focused and complies with every request. I focus on teaching her things and communicating with her effectively, and finding all the things I can say “Yes” for instead of constantly telling her “No”. I love it, it feels so free, especially for her, I’m sure. And life at home is beautiful now – she is so loving, and compared with my previous assumption of her behaviour, she is truly a ‘submissive’ dog, just wanting to do anything to make you laugh or pay attention to her, yet she is never pushy.

    Her reactivity, of course I realize now, is not dominance behaviour which I had been made to believe. She’s simply afraid and confused, and in her mind she is defending herself from a very real threat. Though her reactivity has not improved much, my attitude towards it has improved greatly, and we are able to avoid most triggers, and I am able to easily call her away if she does get sucked into a reaction. In the past, there was not a chance of this happening, and the whole thing would have just be traumatic and frustrating, ruining my entire day. I’m so glad for positivity, and I now spend a great deal of time enjoying her, indoors and out, instead of dreading time spent with her.

  4. Diane says:

    This is really interesting and helpful. I have a dog who is similar to this and have been working with him and reading everything I can about sensitive dogs, reactive dogs. There isnt a lot of informatiom out out there. I’m not a trainer but love my dog. He’s different, somewhat over reactive and reading about a similar dog brings me relief and understanding. Thank you for writing about this topic and your experiences. I am grateful.

  5. Jessica says:

    Goodness gracious I HATE fence fighting – and all of my neighbor dogs want to engage. I’m fairly certain the fence fighter that lives behind me is the one that pushed my dog into becoming dog-reactive, and so I’ve had to manage, retrain, and sometimes restrain my two from engaging in fence fighting any longer, which has decreased their overall level of reactivity significantly.

    I highly recommend sections of plastic corrugated roofing panels cut to fit over chain link to provide a visual barrier. That cut down on the intensity a LOT.

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